The unity of ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) is said to be at stake after the life-time ban on the party leader and former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. Though his successor as party president and also his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif is trying to get a hold on the party, many of the party’s elected members, who are also potential electables in the next general election, have left the party in the past few days.
A five-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, headed by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, on April 13, unanimously set life-time as period of disqualification of members of the parliament under Article 62(1) (f) of the Constitution. The judgment decided the fate of ousted prime minister Sharif and some other politicians.
This permanent disqualification will hold until the court declaration disqualifying the lawmaker stands, according to the judgment. Nawaz Sharif can neither contest the elections in the future nor head his party. The judgment is being projected as the last nail in the political coffin of elder Sharif. He and his party have ruled the country for the past three decades, allegedly with the tacit support of the establishment, whom he now blames for planning his permanent ouster.
This along with the corruption cases against him proceeding swiftly in the National Accountability Court (NAB) has clearly divided the party into two groups. Of these, one is led by Nawaz Sharif and his self-proclaimed successor daughter Maryam Nawaz, seeking confrontation with the institutions for her father’s ouster, and the other is led by Shahbaz Sharif and some leaders who don’t mind a ‘compromise’ with the institutions.
The biggest concern of the PML-N ruling family is to keep the party unity and win the next general elections scheduled in mid-2018, and then decide the policy of the party. A couple of days before the SC judgment, a bunch of PML-N lawmakers from South Punjab announced to leave the party and contest the next general election in an independent capacity. A couple of others from Punjab and Balochistan left a few days back.
“Although the party has not disintegrated at the moment, there are indications of a split within the party,” says political analyst Zahid Hussain. “As the general elections are approaching, fears of defections are increasing. There is no hope for Nawaz Sharif to return to formal politics in the near future. It will be a major upheaval if he gets some relaxations through the mighty military establishment, which, it seems, does not want to see him back in power.”
Hussain says the PML-N support is based on electables and influential candidates who want to remain in power somehow. “We should recall the situation of 1999 and the general elections 2002 when the elder Sharif was left only with few loyalists,” he says, adding “it is paradoxical that today he is surrounded by people who were once with the military dictator General Musharraf, people like Ameer Muqam, Zahid Hamid, Daniyal Aziz, Mushahid Hussain and others”.
Some insiders fear about 50 more defections in the party in the coming months.
“Presuming that the PML-N will be allowed to breathe, Nawaz Sharif may be out for the foreseeable future,” says senior journalist and editor Asha’ar Rehman, responds to the big question on the challenge of PML-N existence in the present situation. “Shahbaz Sharif has a tough job but he is aided by two factors: one, the PML-N’s popularity which is a reality that cannot be denied; two, there’s a perception in public that no matter how strong Imran Khan is as an alternative, there’s a sense of impermanence about him. There’s a sense that despite all the propping up, Imran is not here for the long haul since he does not have the patience. This is a big plus for the PML-N.”
With this target to achieve majority in the next general elections, there is an unannounced battle of succession that might affect its chances. While Maryam Nawaz is sticking to an anti-establishment line, Shahbaz Sharif has publicly praised the army chief as “straightforward” and urged that civilians and army should work together to counter the challenges faced by the country.
“Party ideology is a recent narrative in the case of PML-N. If and when the Shahbaz doctrine succeeds, the Maryam plank may go in the background. The Maryam group may be allowed to simmer, lest it is required to be brought to the fore. It’s a big party — provided it is allowed to survive. It should have space for all colours, from Rana Sanaullah to Pervaiz Rashid,” says Rehman.